One of my dreams is to create a Christian Mysticism Knowledge Base (or, perhaps better described as a Christian Mysticism Un-knowledge Base!). I wrote the following questions a while back thinking that they would go into the FAQ page of a Mysticism Knowledge Base. And maybe they will. But for now, I’m publishing them here.
What is Christian Mysticism?
Christian mysticism, an aspect of Christian spirituality, emphasizes knowing and encountering God, here and now, in our lives today. The Christian mystics, renowned spiritual teachers from each of the last 20 centuries, were men and women who knew this Divine encounter, and taught and inspired others to do the same. Mysticism emphasizes prayer, meditation, contemplation, worship, community, and living a virtuous life as keys to discovering union with God.
Why does it matter?
Many Christians think the point of religion is to practice self-denial on earth in order to go to heaven after you die. Meanwhile, more and more people (especially younger people) find that spirituality matters more to them than religion. Christian mysticism, first and foremost, is a spiritual path – and it emphasizes not some abstract reward after we die, but finding joy, meaning, purpose, and a sense of real communion, in our present day lives. So in a very real way, Christian mysticism can help us to have a better relationship with God – starting today.
Why did I never learn about this in my church growing up?
For a number of historical reasons, Christianity developed a culture that emphasized religion over spirituality: for the average person, being a Christian meant obeying church teachings, living a moral life, supporting the church financially, and… well, not much else. Even practices like Bible study were more for the “head” than the “heart.” Historically, mysticism was kept alive by monks and nuns, but especially starting in the twentieth century, more Christians are seeking to reclaim this all-but-forgotten spiritual heritage – which is meant for everybody.
Isn’t mysticism just for Catholics?
Many of the great mystics for much of Christian history were monks and nuns. Since most Protestant churches do not have monasteries or convents, these “custodians” of mysticism have tended to be Catholic or Orthodox. However, it should be noted that mysticism is rooted in the BIble, and nearly all of the teachings of the great mystics are universal – appropriate for Christians of all denominations. There have been some great Protestant mystics, like Evelyn Underhill, George Fox, and Howard Thurman.
Is this really Christian? It sounds like something imported from other religions.
Mysticism is a universal spiritual phenomenon – like meditation and prayer, forms of mysticism can be found in all the world’s great religious traditions. Especially in America after World War II, many people became familiar with forms of eastern spirituality and mysticism – Zen Buddhism, Vedanta, and religious forms of Yoga. With its emphasis on meditation and contemplation, Christian mysticism seems very similar to eastern religions. But Christian mysticism is Christ-centered, and based on the teachings of the Bible and the Christian saints.
What is the difference between mysticism and contemplation?
Many people use these words almost interchangeably. They are both difficult to define, and have been used to mean different things by different writers and teachers. For our purposes, think of it this way: mysticism is the theory and contemplation is the practice. In other words, mysticism entails the philosophy and theology of Christian spirituality that is centered on union with God. Contemplation refers to prayer and other spiritual practices that help us to recognize and discover God’s abiding presence in our lives.
Do you have to be a Christian to become a mystic?
Not all types of mysticism are Christian. If you are interested in mysticism in a general sense or your primary focus is interfaith or interspiritual practice, then you might be interested in learning about Christian mysticism without feeling any need to become a Christian. The focus of Via Mysticism is on the uniquely beautiful Christian expression of mysticism. Since Christian mysticism points us toward deep intimacy with Christ and union with the God who is recognized as the Holy Trinity, naturally anyone who is serious about this path would identify as a Christian.
What did Karl Rahner mean when he said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist?”
Most people, especially in Europe and North America, recognize that Christianity is undergoing major transformation in our time. Many churches are losing members, and some entire congregations have had to close their doors. This seems to be the fulfillment of Rahner’s warning about “the Christian of the future” no longer existing. If we take Rahner at his word, perhaps the best hope for the future of Christianity is for Christians to embrace the spiritual heart of Christianity – the mystical way – rather than just the institution.
Why do you have a Patreon page (and ask for donations)?
My blog (mirrored at www.anamchara.com and www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman is a labor of love. I’ve been a student of Christian mysticism for over forty years and a full-time Christian speaker/writer since 2013. Maintaining a blog is a significant commitment of time, and there is no “salary” for doing so (Patheos does pay a small stipend from their advertising revenue but it amounts to just a few dollars each month). Through the generous support of readers like you, my blog is available as a free online resource for anyone who wants to learn about — and explore — the mystical way. For those who do make a pledge, exclusive additional content is available at www.patreon.com/carlmccolman.
Featured image photo by Simone Secci.